The London Film Critics' Circle has just announced its annual award nominations, and although I am a member of said circle, I couldn't help but wince when I saw how many of the front-runners wouldn't be in cinemas for another few weeks. The Wrestler, Revolutionary Road, Slumdog Millionaire, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button ... they are all films which we privileged reviewers have ticked off, but which the paying public won't be able to catch until January.
Blame Oscar. It has long been standard practice for Hollywood studios to release a batch of their heavy-hitters in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards, so they will be fresh in the voters' minds when they're filling in their ballot forms. It has long been an extremely annoying practice, too. The mixed message it sends out is that these splendid motion pictures are all eminently worthy of the Academy's attention, and yet they are all so forgettable that if they debuted as far back as September, they would have already faded from the voters' ailing brains by Christmas.
As calculating – and confusing – as this tactic might be, at least US audiences have the chance to see these Oscar-baiting movies between October and December, and so the Academy Awards can claim they are genuinely looking back at the highlights of 2008. But there is a time-lag before this Oscar fodder sees the light of day in the UK, so on our side of the Atlantic, the Best Film contenders are almost all crammed into January and early February. It is a situation that gets more absurd by the year, as you can tell from the chock-a-block release schedule for the start of 2009.
Take, for example, Friday 23 January. On that one day, there are eight new movies coming to a cinema near you. No fewer than four of them have what's known as Oscar buzz. You can put money on Frost / Nixon, Milk, Rachel Getting Married and Valkyrie all being represented in the Best Film, Best Actor or Best Actress categories, among others.
So which one is a busy film buff supposed to pick? Two weeks later, on 6 February, there is another such pile-up, with four more releases that could well get their stars blubbing through acceptance speeches on Oscar night: Benjamin Button, Doubt, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Wendy & Lucy. As different as these titles are from each other, they are all literate, star-studded, middle-brow dramas – the kind of prestige projects that win gold statuettes, in other words – and they are all likely to attract a similar audience. And assuming that most of the people in that audience can't spend more than an evening or two in their local multiplex every week, they're going to have to miss a lot of films they might have otherwise enjoyed. So much for the crazy notion that movie producers might actually care about the poor fools who pay their wages.
Oscar-type films absolutely must come out in the run-up to the Oscars, apparently, however inconvenient that might be for anyone daft enough to go to the cinema. The only solution, it seems, is to create a separate award ceremony for movies that don't appear during Oscar season – a sort of reverse Winter Olympics, in which only films that come out between spring and autumn need apply. Maybe it would persuade Hollywood that, as readily as we queue up over the warmer months for sequels to CGI-packed video-game spin-offs, a couple of offerings that the studios are proud of might not go amiss, either.